Faustena "Penny" Vahsen assumed she was sitting in the TTC Maryland Department of Education building in Baltimore yesterday to be introduced as a member of a newly formed high school assessment task force.
Imagine the Magothy Middle School teacher's surprise when she learned the news conference was an elaborate ruse to disguise the fact that she had won a $25,000 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.
"I have tears in my eyes," said Ms. Vahsen, 63. "I'm trying to wipe them away. I'm in shock. It's a wonderful thing."
Ms. Vahsen and four other state educators went to the conference room under the pretext that they were selected to the task force. Instead, they were introduced as winners of no-strings-attached checks for $25,000.
Other recipients were Kenneth Gill, principal at Wilde Lake Middle School in Howard County; Peter R. Litchka, a social studies teacher at North Carroll High School in Carroll County; Gerald R. Boarman, principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County; and Miriam B. Dyer, business education teacher at Colonel Richardson High School in Caroline County.
Ms. Vahsen said she was puzzled by Anne Arundel School Superintendent Carol S. Parham's letter asking her to attend the high school assessment task force meeting.
"All I could say was, 'Why was I selected?' " Ms. Vahsen recalled. "I told my fellow teachers at Magothy River that I had to attend this thing on the high schools, and they said, 'But you're a middle school teacher.'
"Now I know why," she said with a laugh.
Lowell Milken, president of the Milken Family Foundation, traveled from his headquarters in California to praise the winners for their work.
"We are saying that education is the key, and principals and teachers have the most important jobs in the world," Mr. Milken said. "We're also trying to encourage our young people to consider this as an occupation."
The philanthropic agency will give out $3.75 million in $25,000 prizes to local educators in 30 states this school year. The foundation was created by convicted junk bond king Michael Milken.
The awards began in California in 1987 and are designed to recognize and reward exemplary educators, heighten public recognition and appreciation of the teaching profession and encourage more men and women to enter the field.
This is the third year an Anne Arundel County teacher has won. Last year's winner was Linda Adamson, a fifth-grade teacher at Mayo Elementary School and state Department of Education "Teacher of the Year" in 1994. Patricia Neidhardt, a science teacher at Broadneck High School, won the award in 1993.
The Maryland winners will be honored at a state banquet in October and will get an all-expense-paid trip to an education symposium in California next May. They will receive their checks at the symposium.
Ms. Vahsen said she might use part of her prize to visit her 10 grandchildren, who live all over the country.
She began her 28-year teaching career as a substitute teacher in Hawaii. She didn't begin teaching full time until she moved to the county in 1984. Ms. Vahsen said she focused on teaching middle-school students because they were "forgotten."
"[Parents] are real interested in elementary school because they're getting that head start, and they're interested in high school because that's where they're thinking about their career," she said. "Middle school is not high on their priority lists.
"But that's where their study habits begin," she added. "That's where peer pressure rears its ugly head . . . and that's the group that needs the most TLC."
Edward Holshey, principal at Magothy River Middle, said he did not hesitate in forwarding Ms. Vahsen's name to the state Board of Education nominating committee.
"She's just an outstanding teacher," Mr. Holshey said. "She's the kind of teacher you would want your son or daughter to have . . . By the time she's done, they want to be a teacher, too."